The U.S. Open begins early tomorrow (breakfast is at 6 a.m.!). We’re certain to see our fair share of epic late-night marathons and the raucous crowds (for tennis) that Flushing is renowned for. But Opens are defined by their personalities, whether it’s an aging Pete Sampras winning his fifth in 2002, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert’s battles in the early eighties, or John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors sweating and screaming their way through our country’s best-ever tennis rivalry. Here solitary souls compete, watched by the whole world, emptying their guts while fans sip vodka drinks and compare outfits. It’s a two-week party. Here are this year’s most compelling players, on both the women’s and men’s sides.
Kim Clijsters, Belgium. In May 2007, the 2005 Open winner announced her retirement, citing injuries and her desire to have a family (with former Villanova basketball player Brian Lynch). Well, she un-retired in March and has shown little rust: In tournaments in Cincinnati and Toronto, she beat four top-twenty players despite two years off and stretch marks. She’ll be unseeded at this year’s Open, but no one wants to play her.
Dinara Safina, Russia. The 23-year-old is the No. 1–ranked player in the world right now … something absolutely no one cares about because she has never won a Grand Slam title. (She was runner-up at the Australian Open and the French Open, and a semifinalist at Wimbledon.) Her brother is Marat Safin, who won the U.S. Open in 2000, and he’s an excellent older sibling: He gets very protective and big-brothery when someone questions his little sis. “I hope she can be No. 1 for a long time so she can prove to everybody that they can go fuck themselves,” he said two weeks ago. Even though she’s No. 1, no one is giving her much of a chance at winning: British oddsmaker PaddyPower has her at an unimpressive 10–1 odds.
Maria Sharapova, Russia. Once the best player in the world (and certainly the most popular and downloadable), shoulder surgery kept her out of last year’s Open and has messed with service game this year. But her larger issue might be off-court activities: She’s been fighting with her coach, dealing with scores of obligations to her clothing line and corporate events, and openly downplaying her chances to win. She’s seeded 29th, which means her return to Flushing could be brief. She may face fellow Russian (and No. 4 seed) Elena Dementieva in the third round.
Serena Williams, United States. The overwhelming favorite, and why not? She’s the defending champ, she’s won Wimbledon and the Australian Open already this year, and she’s motivated to win her twelfth Grand Slam, which would tie her with Billie Jean King for sixth all-time. There are ominous signs, though: She hasn’t won any of her last sixteen non–Grand Slam tournaments, she has her fair share of off-court distractions (she and her sister just became part owners of the Miami Dolphins), and her motivation, particularly in matches against her sister, has always been in question. Still: She’s far better off than Venus, who has actually lost her last two matches. The two can’t play in the finals: If each keeps winning, they’ll meet in the semis.
Novak Djokovic, Serbia. You can have Andy Roddick: We’ll take the wacky Serb who does killer impersonations of other players on tour and is perfectly pleased to play the villain. His “rivalry” with Roddick boiled over last year at the Open, with Roddick questioning Djokovic’s “injuries,” Djokovic verbally bashing Roddick in return, and then beating Roddick while enduring scorn rained down by Flushing’s fans. (The players could meet again in the quarterfinals.) Djokovic is colorful, goofy, emotional, and a total hoot to watch. You know, like tennis players used to be.
Roger Federer, Switzerland. What more can you say? He has won five straight Opens, and he’s looking to become the first to win six in a row, an especially impressive achievement considering he was the first in the Pro era to win five. He’s killing everyone on tour right now. He also won Wimbledon and finally got the French Open monkey off his back. Finally, he’s healthy, and in a happy state of mind after his wife gave birth to twins last month. If he loses, to anyone, it will be a monumental upset.
Andy Murray, United Kingdom. The U.K.’s Next Great Hope has made his power play this year, rising to No. 2 in the world (and No. 2 in the Open seedings). The rap on Murray is that he’s a passive player — those Brits! — and until he unleashes his inner maniac, the general consensus is that he’ll never have a Grand Slam title. But if he’s gonna “man up,” in the local parlance, Flushing’s the place to do it.
Rafael Nadal, Spain. Last year, Nadal came into the Open as a good bet to unseat Federer as the best tennis player in the world. (He also came in shirtless on the cover of this magazine.) He subsequently lost in the semis and struggled with injuries. (To be fair, he made a brief detour to win the Australian Open.) He admits he’s not at his best after taking two months off to rest his knees. The U.S. Open remains the one Grand Slam event he’s never won, but the draw sets up well for him: He wouldn’t face Federer until the final.